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A CurtainUp Review
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812
By Elyse Sommer
Of course, composer-lyricist Dave Malloy knew that even people who had read Tolstoy's epic novel would benefit from a recap of the 70-page chunk from which w this history-a-la-modern-musical was taken. He therefore incorporated it into his introductory prologue.
The reason I'm suggesting getting a head start on the above quoted advice delivered at the beginning of the prologue is that you'll be too immersed in this spectacularly staged production to take your eyes off the stage — not to mention the aisles and the stairs leading to the balcony where the story an lots of audience involvement business play out. (performers handing out pirogies,sitting down next to you, dancing. . .don't ask). If there's one complaint, besides the frequent and annoying use of strobe lights, it's that there are times when it's all just a bit too much. And while I'm not especially enamored of actors speaking their stage directions, it works pretty well here.
No matter if you don't read that program synopsis since Malloy's sung-through lyrics are clear as any play dialogue and propel the narrative most effectively. And director Rachel Chavkin has guided the performers to make their situations and feelings easily comprehensible.
Unlike other Russian epics like Dr. Zhivago that haven't fared as well when adapted for the musical stage, this little engine that could has been on a two-year long journey of success after success by not trying to go the whole nine yards of the book. By concentrating on a section that focuses on social strivings, romantic thrills and disappointments, the sung-through composed show has triumphantly weathered more elaborate productions in ever bigger and more prestigious spaces.
The show's travels and expansion began at Off-Broadway's small Ars Nova Theater. From there it moved to a specially constructed Tent in the Meat Packing District and that tent show 's continued at a further uptown club. From there it was on to a larger, re-imagined production at Boston's American Repertory Theater and now it's made an electrifying landing at Broadway's Imperial Theater.
What Malloy has tagged as an "electropop opera" is indeed electropop influenced and sung-through like an opera, but it also, and beautifully, blends in Russian folk and classical music. His musical integration also applies to the visionary work of director Rachel Chavkin and the superb creative team that's been with the show since its birth. Together they've managed to give audiences a view of Tolstoy's rather overwrought romantic sub-plot through a contemporary and often humorous and unique lens. (If this sounds more than a little like what Hamilton has done, it is).
While there's a special excitement about seeing something fresh and different in its fledgling production, it's also exciting to see it move on and grow. When that success and growth leads to a large conventional Broadway proscenium theater, there's likely to be a downside in terms of having to give up certain things. Most likely to go in this case was the immersive staging which created such an intimate connection the intimacy between performers and audiences. The financial costs of mounting a show on Broadway and keeping a thousand seats filled seven days a week would also be likely to call for more box-office oriented casting.
The good news is that Natasha, Pierre. . . has turned all these risks into assets. The ingenious scenic designer Mimi Lien has transformed the stately old theater into a breathtaking new environment to accommodate the actors ebb and flow through every part of the audience. To expand the use of the aisles an extra ramp cuts down the center of the center section. To bring the action to the mezzanine, there are two much used stair cases. And, since these musicians roam all over the theater, the stage has been extended to seat some people at downstage banquettes. There's also more seating upstage.
Lien's reconfiguration of the theater for this particular show might well serve as a template to democratize the Broadway theater experience. No more budget-constrained "Mezzies" upstairs and theater-goers with deep pockets in the front section of the orchestra. If only the divide between the 1-percenters and the rest could be bridged as effectively!
While most of the actors who've been with the show since 2012, there has indeed been some box-office minded recasting, but this too has worked out to the show's benefit. The chief ticket selling change at the Imperial is that concert and recording superstar Josh Groban. Actually, Anatole, not Pierre, is really Natasha's love interest as the title indicates. But Malloy opted to add performer to his multiple credits, and consequently ratcheted up the role and made him part of the title.
Stellar as all Mr. Malloy's accomplishments are, he's not an especially impressive singer. However, the increased importance given to Pierre turned out to be a good thing since it no doubt helped to attract Josh Groban to venture from concert to musical theater stage. From everything I've heard, Groban not only sings well but has proved to be an impressive actor. Per the box at the top of this review, I'll be back with a first-hand take on Groban's Pierre.
In the meantime, unless you're a Groban diehard, let me assure you that if for any reason he's out for a performance you're attending, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet can be as riveting an experience with his understudy Scott Stangland's Pierre. Seeing him just a couple of days after the opening, I admit I was a bit worried that he'd be less than comfortable and letter perfect taking over this early in the run. That's until I realized that he actually played Pierre throughout the lauded Boston run. And he was just fine here. He's actually a more naturally physically fit for the part without need for padding. Though he doesn't have Mr. Groban's delicious lyrical tenor, he is likeable and does full justice to Pierre's big arias "Dust and Ashes" and the soaring final "The Great Comet of 1812." There are plenty of other standout solos (notably Sonya Alone"), duets ("Natasha and Anatole), trios ("Not In My House"), as well as and company numbers (like the stunning opera scene and "Letters."
Much as Mr. Groban's stage debut is likely to help Natasha, Pierre. . . to become one of the season's biggest new hits, this is a group effort. When awards are presented at next spring's Tony awards, you can expect many from this show to be running up the aisles: Malloy for his terrific music and savvy adaptation . . . Rachel Chavkin and Mimi Lien, for the wizardly direction and all-encompassing scenic design . . .Paloma Young for her eye-popping combination of contemporary punk and historic Russian splendor.
Also likely to show up at award ceremonies is he other above the title newbie to the Broadway production, Denée Benton. Her vivacious Natasha is well paired with Lucas Steele's sexy Anatole. Both are gorgeous to look at and have splendid voices.
This is a big show with twelve primary characters and a large ensemble, so enough said. Even if you get lost in some of these Russian romantic intrigues, you won't be bored.
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Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812
Book,Music, Lyrics and Orchestrations: Dave Malloy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Cast: Josh Groban (Pierre), Denée Benton (Natasha), Brittain Ashford (Sonya), Gelsey Bell (Princess Mary), Nicholas Belton (Bolkonsky/Andrey), Nick Choksi (Dolokhov), Amber Gray ( Hélène ), Grace McLean (Marya D),Paul Pinto (Balaga), Lucas Steele (Anatole)
Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costumes: Paloma Young
Lighting: Bradley King
Sound: Nicholas Pope
Hair and Wigs: Leah J. Loukas
Music Coordinator: John Miller
Stage Manager: Karyn Meek
Running Time: 2 1/2 hour including intermission
Imperial Theatre 249 W 45th St
From 10/18/16; openng 11/14/16; closing 4/23/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 17th press performance
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